Amy Phillips at iLiberty1 and Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet are both blogging against a proposed Texas law which would fund anti-sexual assault programs by adding a $5 tax on top of the admission fees for strip clubs.
Like Tracy and Amy, I’m unhappy with the idea of sin taxes. But I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in years to come. It’s an inevitable result of the growth of anti-tax ideology; when it becomes unfeasible to pay for government services through ordinary taxes, it’s natural to try targeted taxes aimed at groups that are either too unpopular, too disorganized or too poor to put up an effective lobbying resistance. So: Cigarette taxes. Liquor taxes. Lotteries. And now “tassel taxes.”
State Rep. Ellen Cohen, a freshman Democrat and executive director of the Houston Area Women’s Center, and Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, are sponsoring the legislation. [...] Although she is not suggesting that people who frequent strip clubs commit sexual assault, Cohen said money generated by sexually oriented businesses should pay for sexually oriented crimes.
“We are talking about a service that does objectify women and it seems like an appropriate place to raise those kinds of dollars,” she said. “It’s apples to apples.”
It’s estimated that the $5 fee would produce $80 million over the biennium. Cohen wants to see $12 million of that dedicated to sexual assault programs. She, the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and the Texas Council on Family Violence, which are supporting the measure, are flexible about where the rest of the money would go.
But if the idea is a tax on objectification, why not tax the sale of men’s magazines like GQ — and women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, for that matter? And why not a special tax on all cable TV boxes and Texas TV network affiliates? It’s not as if strip clubs are the wealthiest or the most numerous purveyors of objectification that exist. And isn’t it dishonest to try and sell this as a tax to pay for anti-sexual assault programs, when 85% of the money raised will go to the general fund?
This is general taxation by other means. If you can’t tax the people without being creamed in the next election, then you just tax the unpopular people. So you dress up a tax that supports the general fund as a tax against sexual assault; and you don’t go after the networks or GQ or Cosmo because those things are so much more popular than strip clubs.
So what’s my take on this? If I was king of Texas, I’d use a sensible income- or wealth-based income tax to pay for government, rather than sin taxes, which are inevitably arbitrary and unfair. But it’s not up to me; in the end, it’s up to voters, and most voters want a full-service government without paying for it with higher general taxes. So the choice is either to accept the so-called “sin taxes,” or to do with fewer government services – including $12 million a year less for anti-sexual-assault programs.
And with all due respect to Amy — who I like a lot — if libertarians object to this, maybe they should rethink the over-the-top anti-government, anti-tax ideology they’ve been pushing for decades, which is part of what has brought us to this state.
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As Salon magazine’s Broadsheet blog, Tracy Clark-Flory points out the danger of giving legislators the power to financially punish legal activities that they find morally objectionable. In this case, they’re punishing women who choose to take their clothes off for money—because that admission fee is most likely going to come out of the pockets of employees, not the club’s profits—because they don’t like the choice these women have made or the choice their customers make to patronize such clubs.
1) If government can’t “financially punish legal activities that they find morally objectionable,” then some possibly reasonable environmental policies — such as charging higher taxes on factories that pollute due to not updating their equipment — would have to be taken off the table. There are times when a middle ground between making something absolutely illegal, and not addressing it with policy at all, makes sense; usually that middle ground involves fees or taxes.
2) Who is going to pay for the increased admission fee depends on how flexible the demand for attending strip clubs is. My guess is that it’s not very flexible — that is, I think strip club patrons are not going to stop going to strip clubs just because admission is raised $5. If I’m right about that, then most of the extra $5 will be paid by strip club consumers, rather than by dancers or management.
- Amy used to blog at “The Fifty Minute Hour,” one of my favorite libertarian blogs. I’m very happy to find out where she’s blogging nowadays! [↩]
- Maybe it’s not, it’s not like I know anything about Texas politics [↩]
- Of course, I don’t go to strip clubs, drink alcohol, gamble, or smoke, so I could be accused of favoring sin taxes because they’re paid by other people. But for what it’s worth, iirc I voted for the ridiculously high cigarette tax here in Oregon, and since one of my partners smokes like a chimney, it’s quite a bite out of our shared income. [↩]